By John H. Foote
3. PULP FICTION
The two bandits in a donut shop make the decision to rob restaurants, though I bet this is the last one they attempt, and draw their weapons screaming their threats. Freeze frame, the surfer guitar music comes in with a roar, the screen goes black and the words PULP FICTION appear, descending into the background. Two hours and a little more later, you could feel the seismic shake of the film world that the arrival of this extraordinary film and its creator had caused. Quentin Tarantino had arrived and film was never going to be the same. Now 25 years plus later, Tarantino has directed other very fine films but I am not sure he has ever surpassed Pulp Fiction, his second film and masterpiece.
I had the pleasure (?) of interviewing Tarantino for another film years later, Kill Bill Volume Two (2005) and found him to be a difficult interview, unspeakably arrogant and full of himself, but blessed with a vast knowledge of film. He would be asked a single question and go off on a rant, eventually turning the conversation back to himself. Clearly he loved being famous. His film knowledge was gained while working at a now famous video store through the eighties and early nineties, whereas he famously has said, “Film School? I didn’t go to film school, I went to films”. Uh, ok. But Martin Scorsese went to film school, so did Spike Lee and many other outstanding filmmakers, why make it sound so terrible?
Whatever my issues with Tarantino might be, he is an extraordinary director and writer, bringing something new, original to screen dialogue that had long been missing. He can take an ordinary subject and make it something exceptional with his profane laced words and bizarrely, effective manner of having the characters speak. The two hitmen on the way to a job talk about why the Quarter Pounder is not called that in France, but rather the Royal with Cheese!
Tarantino brought back John Travolta from being career dead with Pulp Fiction. The two had met, and Travolta came to Tarantino’s apartment to talk about Pulp Fiction and was stunned to realize he had lived in the exact apartment earlier in his career. Same address, same number, same apartment. Knowing this was a chance for a career boost, Travolta agreed to do the film for actors’ scale, far lower than he was used to getting. Harvey Weinstein of Miramax fought Tarantino on every single casting choice, but Tarantino got the cast he wanted and Weinstein never again questioned the director on anything.
The narrative of the film is actually several stories all interconnected by characters, some of them know each other through the film, and they all know Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) the crime lord of L.A. After the donut shop opening, to which we come back, we see two hitmen – Vincent (Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) – dressed in the exact same black suit, white shirt, black tie on their way to a hit. It is early in the morning, yet they are out doing business. The group they walk in on are a group of young kids led by Brett (Frank Whalley) who foolishly screwed Marcellus over, and with an informer among the group, they are busted which means they are doomed. Jules likes to talk, curious about what kind of burgers the boys chose for breakfast, taking a bite and washing it down with the Sprite on the table. He talks a long time, shooting one of the boys just to get their attention, before he and Vincent unload on Brett.
We then cut to Butch (Bruce Willis), a boxer who is going to take a dive on the orders of Marcellus Wallace and make the crime lord a bundle. Vincent and Jules enter the bar, dressed in Hawaiian shorts and loud clothing, light years from the conservative suits they had been wearing. Vincent is openly hostile to Butch for really no reason, which might come back to haunt him.
The bending, nonlinear storyline swerves and curves, with events such as Marvin, the informer in Brett’s gang getting shot in the face as Jules drives and Vincent talks, waving a gun around that goes off when they bounce over a bump. Now in a car covered in blood and brains, they stick out like a sore thumb so they go to Jules’ friend Jimmy (Tarantino) for help. There they call Marcellus who calls “the Wolf” (Harvey Keitel) and sends him to clean up the mess. As he says, “I think fast, I talk fast, we don’t have time to be nice….”. Wolf helps them figure how to hide the body, get cleaned up, pays off Jimmy, and gets the boys back on the road.
Cut between this action is Vincent’s date with Marcellus Wallace’s wife Mia (Uma Thurman), who he has been directed to take out, have fun and do anything she wants. They enter a strange retro bar where the waiters are all dressed like dead icons, and the booths are car shells. They chat, they talk, and they bond, the sexual tension rising, before Mia wants to dance, hoping to take home a trophy. The dance is a terrific scene, showing off the moves Travolta has never lost from his early days. In the next scene they are bringing home that trophy to Mia’s house, the two going to have nightcap. While Vincent goes off to use the washroom, Mia finds his heroin in his coat and thinking it cocaine snorts it, the damage immediate and she seizes before collapsing. Realizing if she dies he is dead, he loads her into the car and heads to his dealers’ home where a massive needle filled with adrenaline will be plunged into her, through the thick breast plate and into her heart reviving her. It is a superbly creepy sequence in its shocking violence with the needle and Mia’s sudden freaked out reaction. Vincent gets her home, the two sheepish and not wanting her husband to find out any of what has transpired.
Meanwhile Butch has betrayed Marcellus, won the fight, actually accidentally killing his opponent in the ring, making him hundreds of thousands, but causing Marcellus to lose that amount. He wants him found and he wants him dead. Butch and his French girlfriend, ultra-needy, go into hiding but when they are going make their escape, he discovers she has forgotten his prized watch that his father carried through Vietnam for him. He must have it and returns to his apartment to get it. Sneaking in, he sees a machine gun on the counter as he munches a pop tart, realizing someone is in the bathroom. The toilet flushes and out comes Vincent, busted hunting Butch. Butch shoots him, the force of the bullets blowing him back into the bathtub, where he is left dead. Butch leaves the house, is spotted by Marcellus, runs him down before they flee down the street into a pawn shop. There they are taken prisoner by a couple of homosexual S and M’ers who delight in torturing their prey before killing them. Marcellus is up first and as Butch listens he finds a means of escape and is upstairs about to go out the door when he cannot leave Marcellus to these two. He goes through a series of weapons before deciding on a samurai sword (foreshadowing Kill Bill?) and goes back downstairs where Marcellus is being sodomized. Butch kills one of them, the other is shot and left alive to be tortured before dying. Not wanting any of this to ever get out, Marcellus lets Butch go, though L.A. is off limits to him forevermore.
And we end up back in the diner we were in at the beginning with Vincent back in the scene, obviously brought back to life by the genius of the broken narrative. Jules is retiring after experiencing an epiphany today, bullets fired directly at him that missed. He shot the young man firing at he and Vincent (of course he did), but decided that was it, he was done. But first he has to pay this cocky young robber a lesson.
Then he and Vincent exit the diner into the bright morning of the L.A. sun. One going to a new life, the other to his doom.
Like everyone else who watched Pulp Fiction in the press screening that day, I was bowled over by the film, by the dialogue, the performances, the direction, it was like an explosion of startling creativity on the screen in front of me. This must have been what seeing On the Waterfront (1954) was like being seen for the first time, or The Godfather (1972) or The Godfather Part II (1974), even Apocalypse Now (1979)!
The art was changing as the film unspooled through the projector, movies would never be the same. Quentin Tarantino had arrived, and he ate celebrity up. Merging the multi-character, intertwined plot of Robert Altman, with the explosive, savage violence of Martin Scorsese, with the dialogue of Woody Allen, though freshened up and made dark, he was an original new talent, who was suddenly everywhere and he was THAT recognizable. And he loved being famous, no, it was bigger than that, he had waited his entire life to be famous and now that it had arrived, he was going to do everything he could to carry it on. What film folk wanted was another film, but it would be three years before another Tarantino graced the screen – a long, punishing wait.
There are scenes in Pulp Fiction that became immediate classics of film lore. That startling open surfer music announcing the credits. Jules and Vincent talking about life before doing their job as killers. Jules suddenly shooting the young man lounging on the couch casually as taking a breath. Vincent shooting up heroin, seeing the drug haze over him, making him ultra-cool, and then his dance scene with Mia, an even greater cool if possible. The needle to the heart, both gruesome and hilarious. Christopher Walken showing up to gift young Butch the watch his grandfather and father carried in their anus back to him. Butch gunning down Vincent as he emerges from the bathroom having forgotten his machine gun in the kitchen. That look of sheepish shock on Vincent’s face before the bullets tear through him. That startled look on Marcellus Wallace’s face when he encounters the fleeing Butch on a street, in an homage to Psycho (1960). Butch choosing a weapon to do damage with, and save Marcellus. Jules staring down the robbers in the diner, fearless, and then letting them go. All dark movie magic as though whipped up by an intense sorcerer with an encyclopedia like knowledge of cinema.
Travolta, in a massive comeback, was suddenly as big a star as he had been in the seventies, and no one had ever been bigger.
His electrifying performance as Vincent drew him rave reviews, the kind he got in the seventies and early eighties and had not gotten since. He won the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Actor, putting him into the Oscar race. It was thrilling to see him on screen again in a role worthy of his substantial gifts.
Jackson had been floating on the outside of stardom for a few years, winning awards for his work in Spike Lee films, but never quite breaking through. Here he is magnificent as Jules, possessed by a baleful glare of doom that is constantly a highlight. Bruce Willis was terrific, Uma Thurman wonderful, there just was not a weak performance in the entire film.
Pulp Fiction began its awards trail way back in May at Cannes where it famously won the Palme D’Or as the festival’s Best Film.
The film won the Los Angeles Film Critics Association award for Best Picture and Best Director, and Tarantino took home every critics Best Director prize, including the critics in Boston, Chicago, New York, and the prestigious National Society of Film Critics. Nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Director, Actor (Travolta), Supporting Actor (Jackson), Supporting Actress (Thurman) and Screenplay, Tarantino and Roger Avary won for Best Original Screenplay, but that was the only win of the night as Forrest Gump (1994) dominated the Oscars.
History has proven Pulp Fiction was the best film of 1994, impacting with earthquake force in the film industry. And Tarantino, despite great films since – two more nominations for Best Director and another Oscar win for writing Django Unchained (2012) – has been a force in cinema but he has yet to surpass this work, and might never do so.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.